Fragment on Government (July 1, 1854)


#103 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, July 1, 1854

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How Historians Interpret

“Lincoln was, in the largest sense, a classical nineteenth-century liberal, and he not only shared the classical liberal cultural commitments to rationality, individualism, personal rights, and progress, but the backbone of his reading in the 1840s and 1850s was in the basic texts of liberal political economy: ‘[John Stuart] Mill’s political economy, [Henry] Carey’s political economy … [John Ramsey] McCullough’s political economy, Wayland, and some others.’ (Herndon particularly remembered that ‘Lincoln ate up, digested, and assimilated’ Francis Wayland’s 1837 textbook The Elements of Political Economy).  He tempered this with a strong overlay of moral principle, but then again, the Whig party itself embodied a unique compromise of evangelical Protestant moralism with opportunism. Lincoln, in that respect, was the perfect Whig.”

Allen C. Guelzo, “Come-outers and Community Men: Abraham Lincoln and the Idea of Community in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 21.1 (2000)

“Some said government should do no more than protect its people from insurrection and foreign invasion and spend the rest of its time dispassionately observing the way its people played out the cards that fate had dealt them. He scorned that view. He called it a ‘do nothing’ abdication of responsibility. ‘The legitimate object of government,’ he said, ‘is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves. There are many such things…,’ he said.  So he offered the ‘poor’ more than freedom and the encouragement of his own good example: he offered them government. Government that would work aggressively to help them find the chance they might not have found alone. He did it by fighting for bridges, railroad construction and other such projects that others decried as excessive government. He gave help for education, help for agriculture, land for the rural family struggling for a start.  And always, at the heart of his struggle and his yearning was the passion to make room for the outsider, the insistence upon a commitment to respect the idea of equality by fighting for inclusion.”

Mario M. Cuomo (governor of New York), “Abraham Lincoln and Our ‘Unfinished Work’” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 8.1 (1986)

“I have not asked whether Lincoln freed the slaves or the slaves freed themselves, because Lincoln never considered these roads to emancipation as mutually exclusive.  Certainly he knew that thousands of slaves, in individual heroic acts of rebellion, were leaving their masters to seek freedom behind the Union lines, but he also knew that ending the institution of slavery required official action on the part of the United States government.”

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 14-15


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Searchable Text

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.
In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.
The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.
The first—that in relation to wrongs—embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.
From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.
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